What if the North had Nuclear Weapons in the Civil War?

An alternate history timeline explores the possibilities of a better world.


Matt Grimes, Political Society President, Elected Student Leader, Boat Owner, Dark Horse for Valedictorian, Debate Team HOFer, Winner and Loser.

The Civil War was the most cataclysmic event in the history of our country. Immense suffering occurred on all sides; the South underwent the crushing defeat of their country, their ideology, and their society, the North lost thousands of men and boys to warfare and disease, the slaves underwent the uncertain transition from a life of bondage to an unknown world of freedom. Reconciliation was necessary, the defeated party could not be sent away. Yet still, the rage of the defeated south still permeated and divided the nation, up until today. But what if reconciliation was not needed? From a perspective of alternate history, what is the North possessed the ultimate form of warfare, a nuclear weapon, and used it?

To set the context for this scenario, the North has developed a basic ICBM, capable of launching into space and striking anywhere on Earth. The technology developed independently of any other military technology, thus the warhead existed among primitive rifles and bayonets. In addition, Abraham Lincoln, could not be president in a scenario where a nuclear strike is authorized. In hand with his intelligence, one of Lincoln’s key qualities was his acute awareness of the historical legacy his actions would incur, he would have been much too careful as to launch a nuke. Instead, in our alternate history scenario, the Democratic Party does not split, and Southerner John Breckenridge is elected President. The Northern Republicans, galvanized by their defeat, do not acknowledge Breckenridge as president, and a violent movement led by abolitionist John Brown begins to accumulate. In our alternate timeline, Brown escapes his execution and returns to the North, with his violent tendencies only further stoked. Brown’s group, who obtain the name the John Brown Boys, lead attacks on Washington D.C., causing President Breckenridge to move out of the White House and into friendly ground in Richmond, Virginia. The conflict between the John Brown Boys and the Federal Government leads the country into the violence of the Civil War. 

However, due to the militant nature of Brown’s movements, all slave states, including the border states of Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri (who in reality joined the North) stay with the South, in addition to the Western territories. The North, now at a disadvantage, becomes desperate after key defeats at Antietam and Gettysburg. Facing no other option, President John Brown pushes the red button. A short 15 minutes later, the cities of Richmond, New Orleans, Charleston and Mobile are struck, and in a single second, the Confederacy’s largest population centers are converted into flaming fields of blackened ruins. 

The bombs completely destroy the Confederacy’s ability to make war, leading to their surrender. President Breckenridge, along with other Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, are missing and assumed dead. Southerner Soldiers, not knowing what had taken pace, abandon their posts and flee for their lives, fearing that the apocalypse was underway. In the North, parades are held to celebrate the end of the war and the success of Brown’s crusade against slavery. Slaves are welcomed into the new country in the North with open arms. The South, completely laid to waste by the bombs, takes decades to be repopulated, and returns to the Union as free states. The John Brown Amendments are added to the Constitution, ending Slavery,  giving black men suffrage, and ensuring equal protection of the law for all U.S. Citizens. The ensuing Gilded age, is more characterized by social reform than by economic and industrial development. After Brown’s passing, the Republican Party emerges as the only national political party, in addition to the more radical Liberal Republicans, lead by Charles Sumner, and the more conservative Union Party, a coalition joined by former Democrats and Nativist Know-Nothings. 

Former slaves are given Reparations in the new Union, consisting of 40 acres of land and a mule (in our reality, this promise was given but never realized). In addition, Native Americans maintain their own sovereignty in the West, extending their territory into the Badlands. Emancipation clears the stage for other progressive reforms, namely women’s suffrage and Prohibition. The new country is more unified behind these reforms, thus Prohibition persists until the modern day. Moving forward, the Great Depression does not hurt the United States, as the electoral landscape prevents Franklin Roosevelt from becoming President and introducing the New Deal. In addition, the United States becomes involved in World War II sooner, as the populace is more oriented toward justice rather than isolationism. 

After the decline of the Confederate, the Nazis and the Communists become the main enemies of American Society. However, as the United States completely possess the means of Nuclear Proliferation, the Cold War does not occur, and the Soviet Union falls apart amid economic destitution and the failure of Communism. Furthermore, an equivalent of the Democratic Party never emerges due to the lingering hatred from their support of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Instead, the GOP remains the dominant national party throughout the 20th Century and on. In our alternate timeline, Donald Trump is never elected President, as he does not display the strict Christian Moralism that John Brown’s ideology was based on. Instead, Matt Grimes is elected President, sweeping the electoral college.

Of course, this is not likely how it would have turned out, but as you gaze upon this glorious possible-past, remember the deeper meaning of the Civil War’s legacy. Why does the Civil War hold such an enduring grip on us all? What about that nasty Confederate Flag? Why doesn’t it just go away? Why do Civil War Re-enactors Exist? Why is our Historical Imagination so fixated on the National tragedy that is the Civil War? Perhaps it’s because it’s Civil Wars by their very nature require reconciliation. We could not ignore the defeated party, we could not send them away. While the civility of Appomattox and the later joyousness of the Blue And Grey Reunions capture, to a certain extent, the charity that was seemingly extended to both sides, below the pomp and circumstance of staged photo-ops lay the failed promises of Emancipation, the failure of Reconstruction, and the continuing bitterness of the White Southerners who were truly defeated, and the despair of freed slaves who found no daybreak amid a land that discriminated against them. Even today, the unshaken hands of the Civil War still hurt our Country and mark a deep sin in our National Consciousness.